After three weeks of exploring Tanzania, from the lush jungles in Arusha to the white sands of Dar Es Salaam and the agriculture regions and tea fields of Morogoro and Tukuyu, we were ready to cross the border into Malawi. This tiny country which is often overlooked by many is also known as the ‘warm heart of Africa’. After our departure from Tukuyu and a short mini-bus ride, we were dropped in the small border town of Kasumulu. From this point we began to walk toward the border. The walk was only about twenty minutes and was fairly easy. Along the road we attempted to offload as much of our extra Tanzanian shillings with the local women on the streets selling avocados and mangos. We also befriended many children who looked like they were walking home from school, even though it was late morning. Although the kids are probably used to seeing the occetional muzungu backpacker walking this stretch of road we still had a curious following of mostly shy munchkins. One lucky young girl got gifted a pair of Chris’s old sunglasses. The temple (that is the part that holds the glasses on your ear) had broken off, but together we superglued the appendage back on the main part of the sunglasses – giving them a second life. We then handed them over to the young girl who promptly placed them on her face and continued to skip down the street with a huge smile spread from ear to ear.
After about twenty minutes of walking we reached the border. We could tell we were getting closer because of the increased number of people wandering the sides of the streets trying to sell us useless items and exchange any number of Eastern African currencies for us. We went through our typical routine of ignoring them with the occasional “no we already have one/money”. Much like the last crossing there wasn’t much organization on leaving or entering the countries. The one major difference that was to our advantage this time was that our entry to Malawi cost $0. After the $50 apiece we shelled out for Kenya and $100 each for our Tanzania entries, we were very pleased with this.
Before we had officially left the so-called border crossing area, we met some inspiring cyclists. The couple had started in Cape Town and were biking their way up to Dar Es Salaam. While checking out their bikes we exchanged advice on where to stay in each country, SIM cards, and they gifted us a guidebook for Malawi, which ended up coming in very handy. We were able to point them in the right direction for where to get the Tanzanian visa.
We had in fact gotten a bit lost ourselves trying to find where to get our passports stamped as we entered Malawi. Apparently we were on the exit side when we finally did arrive at a window, and had to be directed as to where to go. For the amount of money Tanzania and some of these countries take for visas you think they would be a little more concerned with making sure people enter and exit their countries properly. The disorder to it all only made for a few more laughs, more interesting experiences, and a greater connection with whatever other lost foreigner was trying to find their way across the border.
Border crossed, we now had to find our way to Nkhata Bay, our desired destination for the night. This wasn’t as obvious as we had originally thought it would be. We also felt that some of the locals lingering near the borders weren’t really the most reliable people to get information from as they would usually be looking for a way to get some money for themselves. While we were trying to find where the mini-buses picked up we meet another fellow traveler who was from Kenya. He was friendly and told us to stick with him. About ten minutes later we found ourselves loading into a car with him. Another guy who was headed to Mzuzu had offered a ride for a price. Everyone had the understanding that it would be 3500 kwacha apiece ($9). Somehow the communication was either mixed up or the driver was just an asshole and decided to pull a bait and switch. We were all loaded up in the car when he demanded we each pay him 3500 kwacha for a ride to the nearest town of Karonga, which was only 40 minutes away, and still another 180 kilometers from where we had agreed upon. We weren’t about to get screwed on our first hour of being in Malawi. Even the Kenyan guy was angry with him. So, we kindly told him he wasn’t giving us a good first impression of the Malawian people, got out of his car, grabbed our bags and jumped into a pick-up truck passing by that waved for us to jump in. Our Kenyan friend sat in the front with two others and we (Chris and us) jumped into the back where another two guys were. We all happily paid 700 kwacha for a ride to the town of Karonga (where we would catch a legit minivan) and took in our first views of beautiful Malawi with the wind whipping through our hair. Life is good. Welcome to Malawi!
Butterfly Space Lakeside Chillout
After arriving to Karonga we then transferred to a mini-bus that would take us to Mzuzu. Although it was only 220 km away, this would be a long and cramped four hour leg of the trip. As normal, the mini-bus stopped for anyone and everyone that wanted a ride, cramming everyone in no matter how little space there was. This was now the third leg of our trip for the day and the one that began to wear on all of us. The scenery during the ride was amazing, but this was often muted out by the crammed van and increasing heat over the day. By the time we arrived in Mzuzu all of us were ready to get to our end destination as fast as possible. Our confusion about prices for mini-buses began here. The guide book we had said mini-bus prices to Nkhata Bay were 300-400 kwacha while the mini-bus drivers were asking for 1000. Although we highly doubted that the prices had more than doubled, it turns out they pretty much had. We eventually ended up confirming this with a local. In the last fifteen months prices for fuel had doubled which trickled down to the transport. But this was also balanced with the decreased value of the kwacha which was now 400 for every $1 compared to the 200 it used to be. Upon our arrival our unconfirmed doubts on prices combined with our lack of energy to bargain with the mini-bus guys landed us in a shared taxi. We each had our own seat, no stops, and only 50 minutes to our destination.
After a full day, four different vehicles, and one more border crossed we arrived in the small lakeside town of Nkhata Bay. The town itself is small yet a has a huge draw for backpackers. We had decided to stay at the Butterfly Space. This spot is actually a little eco-community that has projects to enrich locals. They also offer low cost lodging as a part of their business to bring in funds. Camping was one of the lodging options as well (which was only $2.25 per person a night) and it gave us a perfect opportunity to use the tent we had bought in Israel (specifically for this purpose) for the first time. At roughly 5pm, after walking up the hill for about fifteen minutes we arrived. Eager to rest after a long day of travel we quickly set up our tents and Chris set up his hammock and mosquito net which would serve as his bed.
Immediately those that were already staying there were welcoming and invited us to join them at the popular BBQ buffet at Mayoka, which is the more upscale hostel next door. We decided to skip out on the meal (although after seeing how amazing it was we ended up coming back the following week for it) and instead joined the group later for drinks. Those staying at Butterfly were a mix of volunteers and transit backpackers. Everyone had seemed to have been there for at least a week – we were told that it was common to come to Nkhata Bay thinking you would only be there for a couple days and end up there for weeks. This would be exactly what happened to us as well. While we originally had planned to only stay for two nights and then catch the Ilala ferry to travel south down Lake Malawi, we eventually changed our plans and slowed our pace down.
Butterfly Space became our home over the next week. The patio was a gathering place where we cooked meals and shared beers with our other fellow Butterfly companions. Amanda and James took full advantage of the space – reading books, going for afternoon swims, doing laundry, hula hooping on the lakeside deck, and generally chilling out during the days while Chris and Ben were in scuba classes.
Aqua Africa and Scuba Diving
When one thinks of Malawi the word scuba probably doesn’t come to mind. At least it didn’t for any of us. But we soon came to learn that Lake Malawi is a well known dive spot due to it’s unique fresh water fish life. There is even a segment about this on the BBC series Planet Earth. It also happens to be one of the cheapest places in the world to get a PADI scuba certification. Aqua Africa is the well known and loved spot in Nkhata Bay for has been and wanna be scuba divers (and we guess everything in between those two things). We discovered why this spot is so well-loved almost instantly after heading this direction to inquire about scuba certification classes for Chris and Ben. Not only is the spot a hidden gem, boasting a beautiful lakeside location with a comfy porch that has nice large cushiony sofas (which Amanda found herself napping in on several future occasions) but the staff (dive master Rob and manager Matt) were super friendly and interesting people. After ten minutes of chatting with Rob the two boys were signed up for a Thursday to Sunday certification course.
Since there was time to spare before the course started we all decided to do side trips before the four day intensive began (which you will get a full glimpse at next post). In general, this became our second home (if not our first) in Nkhata Bay. From approximately 9am to 4pm the boys would be busy studying, learning, watching cheesy 80’s videos on safety, proving they could swim, and practicing on open water dives. Amanda spent about 75% of the time with the boys at Aqua Africa when they were there. Although she was certified, her last dive had been over eight years ago and her PADI training was now almost fifteen years behind her. So she took the opportunity to read through the books they guys had, take the quizzes with them, and review the dive decompression tables. When she wasn’t brushing up on knowledge she would either work on the computer (Aqua Africa was pretty much the only place that had free wifi which was amazing when the power wasn’t out [this was a typical country-wide occurrence] or the network wasn’t over-bogged with users) or nap on the comfy sofas. Rob being the super cool dive master he is, he even allowed her to join the last open water dive with the guys, giving her a hands-on brush up on the equipment and dive skills. Doing a dive together was an awesome way to end the course and our time in Nkhata Bay. We also got to be the group that took the new dive boat out for her maiden voyage!
For those who are curious, this fresh water lake offers a wide variety of some of the most unique fresh water fish you will see. The lake is home to thousands of species of Cichlids (which are the most popular fresh water aquarium fish) of vibrant colors. These fish along with others (such as the enormous Catfish and mouthbreeders) living in the stunning underwater rock formations make the diving experience here unique to almost all other places in the world.
Between all the studying and diving there were many pots of coffee, tea, and amazing meals eaten here. Frisbee was played in the water between afternoon swims. It quickly became our little hang out spot when we weren’t at Butterfly Space.
Nightlife in Nkhata Bay
It didn’t take long for us to discover and indulge in the relatively safe nightlife that Nkhata Bay offered. Needless to say Chris had some universal prayers in power. These were intensified by the long trip we had to get to Malawi. While we had heard that Nkhata Bay offered an open backpacker style to nightlife on the weekends, we had no idea what was in store for us. On our very first day in Nkhata Bay we managed to meet locals (even after setting up our tents after dark) and find our way to the local Friday night hot-spot in town. We aren’t even sure if some of the bars had names. No names were needed, it was a bar, it was open, and therefore people came. The bar was packed and the town was alive with a mix of locals and foreigners. Within ten minutes of entering the bar, Chris recognized a guy (by the name of Booba, but we called him Boobies for short) who had approached us before when we first entered town and were walking to Butterfly Space. He had told us he had the hookup for the ‘Bob Marley cigarette’. As tired travelers, we laughed with him but continued our way uphill promising we would no doubt cross paths with him in the future in such a small town. And here we were, maybe eight hours later, crossing paths again with our new found friend. You had to give these guys credit for coming up with names the foreigners could remember. In addition to Boobies there was Happy Coconut and Fierce Tiger.
The entire scene was very interesting. Half the crowd was partying the night away drinking Special Brew (a Malawi beer favorite – made by Carlsberg) and the other half indulged in Coca Cola. We are still undecided as to whether this is due to the low price of Cola or high rate of single muzungu women backpacking in this area. We arrived at the conclusion that the best answer to this enigma was probably a combination of both. The night quickly passed by us. Despite the multiple bottles of POWERS (a cane spirit) and honey brandy consumed together, we all (us and our Butterfly Space mates) arrived home safely. The following day we all awoke with fuzzy memories, stories, bruises, and our first real taste of the Malawi backpackers scene in our system. Amanda managed to sleep the entire afternoon on the patio of a local Thai-fusion Restaurant, Kaya Papaya, while the boys ate a full meal and discussed the week to come. We thought this would be the last of our “big night out” (having had our fun and getting the party party out of our systems) but little did we know our taste for the ‘Nkhata Bay’ nightlife was only the warm up.
After returning from our side trips the guys began their course for the scuba certification and were in full swing after two days. This unfortunately was also Friday night for Nkhata Bay – and a welcomed Friday night after a long week of multiple power outages, the water pump not working at Butterfly Space, and other minor issues. Josie, the manager and heart of Butterfly Space, had a couple friends in town for the weekend. The night began with a couple glasses of wine before a good chunk of us all headed next door to Mayoka for the deservedly well known BBQ Buffet they hosted on Fridays. In addition to the BBQ’d meats they offered a ton of delicious veterinarian dishes also (like chili bites that were to die for). It was hands down the best meal we had in Northern Malawi. The dinner was followed by a street art performance in which Chris was selected as an audience participant. The show ended with a slightly disturbing performance of the owner coming out (a bit sloshed) and breaking the ice on the dance floor by taking his shirt off and attempting some unsuccessfully sexy moves. All of this was a nice little pre-fueling for the night that was to come.
Eventually the group moved back over to the bar at Butterfly Space. The number of people in the bar slowly began to increase just as Chris and Ben called it a night. Just as they were going to bed before a full day of scuba lessons, even more people from the neighbouring Mayoka lodge came over, including the South African temporary assistant manager Jiondre (whom Amanda had become great friends with) and his friends. This combination paired with Josse and her crazy friends from out of town turned into a saucy crew ready to have a good time. The music was pumping, beers were flowing, and people were partying. At about 2:30am Ben got up to go to the bathroom and found Amanda wandering (a bit lost) looking for Jiondre. After asking her if she was tired and her drunkly admitting “well yes, I am” he graciously showed her the way to the tent where she promptly fell asleep. We both slept soundly that night until we were woken at 6am by loud claps of thunder. Ben knew what this meant and was about twenty steps ahead of Amanda in moving the bags under cover. We had just got all our gear in a safe zone when it began to pour. As it poured rain outside those who were still up from partying (yes as in haven’t yet slept) and the other tent dwellers poured into the covered area. It was the official beginning of rainy season that would start to interfere with our camping plans over the following month. The partiers continued to drink from the still full wine bottles while those who were abruptly awoken by mother nature drank from coffee cups. It was a funny mix of people and somehow it managed to brighten the very damp and dark morning.
Another fun night in Nkhata bay was a delayed “pub quiz.” Some of the volunteers at Butterfly space took it upon themselves to organize a pub quiz on a Thursday night. It was cancelled due to a power outage the first time (as no one would want to be ordering warm beers during the quiz), so a few days later an Australian named Steve (he was helping makeover the website for Butterfly) led the charge. Several teams joined the quiz, and the little bar hut by the water at Butterfly Space was again probably more full than it had been in months. There were even several locals who joined that evening for the quiz.
From our little group we had team “Irish I was Spanish” (Ben and James) and ” 2-C and the Britts” (Chris and his new ladyfriend Izzy from the UK). Admittedly, the Aussie in charge made a very challenging pub quiz that went on for a few hours, with Ben and James coming in 2nd, and Chris and Izzy in 3rd. Only the 1st place team got prize money for winning — but Ben and James did win 350 Kwacha for best team name. Overall it was a fun night, and served it’s purpose of brining in more much needed business for the Butterfly Space, which focuses most of its energy on their community programs, and less on the money-generating budget traveler side.
After a week and multiple nights of relaxing, making new friends, and letting loose in Nakata Bay this would be our final real night out. Given the almost victories we didn’t do too bad.
Chikale Beach Outing
About a ten minute walk beyond the already out of town Butterfly Space you will find yourself on Chikale Beach. We had heard this beach was known for the parties they had on Sundays where locals would flock to the beach here. On our last Sunday afternoon we decided to to go check it out and see what all the fuss was about. This journey had multiple reasons for happening. 1) We wanted to celebrate Ben’s graduation from scuba school with a drink. 2) The power had been out all day (remember, the country tended to have blackouts on Sundays) and rumor had it there was a sports bar here with a generator giving James a slight chance of catching the Manchester United game. 3) We all wanted to explore somewhere new, after a week Nakata Bay seemed even smaller than it was when we arrived. So we headed out together to walk the road that led just over a kilometer from Butterfly Space going over a small hill to the beach. Chikale beach was a cove, like many of the other beaches, but larger. The sand was very soft, and while there wasn’t the party scene we had expected to see the spot was secluded and relaxing. Unfortunately for James, the bar overlooking the beach was not using a generator, and so he missed the match, but we have a nice cold beer and a couple of us enjoyed a good swim. We also got a kick of watching some of the locals playing games: there was a water “volleyball” game being played, and also a game of ‘drag the passed out guy around through the sand‘ that was more entertaining to see. After a couple hours, we headed back to our place to prep another dinner over the charcoal grill. Along the way, we stopped to watch as the local kids climbed trees to collect mangoes, while their friends threw rocks at the mangoes, almost hitting their counterparts in the trees. We paid a couple of the kids for some mangos (rewarding them for their hard work) and pocketed them for dessert. The following day we would be waking at 6am to catch a boat. Our time in Nakata Bay had come to an end now, and as much as we enjoyed it we were all ready to move on.